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The Philippines Human Rights Commission and the ‘Carbon Majors’ Petition

Published on December 22, 2017        Author: , and

The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 has been followed by a burgeoning strand of climate change litigation, with test cases being heard all over the world (see Columbia Law School database). Amongst others, litigants have argued that emissions are the proximate cause of adverse climate change impacts, thereby giving rise to specific liability. One of the boldest efforts to test the boundaries of the law in this area is a petition currently being heard by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR or Commission). The petition originated in 2016, when after a surge of typhoons wreaking havoc in the Philippines, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Pilipino human rights groups and citizens requested the Commission to investigate the responsibility of 47 oil, gas, coal, and cement companies for human rights violations or threats thereof resulting from the impacts of climate change (so-called Carbon Majors petition). The petition has attracted much attention in the media and numerous academics and civil society organisations have submitted amicus briefs in support of the petitioners. Last week, the Commission groundbreakingly asserted its jurisdiction to investigate the petition (CHR press release). The Commission also announced multiple fact-finding missions and public hearings in 2018, to be held both within and without the Philippines. This post reflects on the international law implications of the petition for arguments concerning the liability of corporations for alleged human rights violations associated with the impacts of climate change in a transnational context.

The Scope of the Commission’s Jurisdiction

Similar to other national human rights institutions, the CHR has a mandate to investigate:

all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights and to investigate and monitor all economic, social and cultural rights violations and abuses, as well as threats of violations thereof, especially with respect to the conditions of those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, and vulnerable (Rule 2, Omnibus Rules of Procedure). 

Some respondents challenged the Commission’s jurisdiction to hear the petition. Citing the Lotus case, they argued that a State’s jurisdiction is limited ‘only to the confines of its physical boundaries’ (e.g. Cemex, at 11). As we explained in our amicus brief, States frequently exercise adjudicatory and legislative jurisdiction over persons or events outside their territory, as long as there is a clear connecting nexus between that State and the person or conduct that it seeks to regulate. Therefore, and contrary to what was suggested by the respondents, the exercise of the Commission’s jurisdiction over foreign corporations is neither an ‘act of interference’ or ‘usurpation’ of other States’ sovereignty (Cemex, at 16), nor ‘tantamount to an undue encroachment on the territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty of such other States where Respondents are domiciled and operate’ (Shell, at 1). As long as the Commission’s investigation falls within one of the established principles of jurisdiction, it is in accordance with international law. The most relevant principles for the purposes of the petition are the territorial and the protective principles. Read the rest of this entry…

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